Penang, the anxious tourist’s perfect gateway to South-East Asia.

I am going to make a pretty bold statement. If you have never been to South-East Asia and want an easy introduction, Malaysia in general, and Penang in particular, might just be your best bet. The very multicultural city has just enough hustle and bustle to give you a feel for the region, without being too overwhelming. Streets can be a little chaotic, but not so much so that you can’t easily walk around them. And because of the long British heritage, English is widely understood.

This is particularly useful if you want to sample the local cuisine but have food allergies. While it is reasonably easy to find, say vegetarian food anywhere in South-East Asia, relying on the limited English skills of a Cambodian or Vietnamese waitress to guard against your serious allergy to, for example, sesame, is not the wisest thing to do. So you end up, like someone I know, eating a lot of spaghetti in Vietnam. That is not generally a problem in Malaysia. Of course, you can also go to Singapore, but there you will get the food experience in a very developed, “first world” setting.

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One great way to so sample the food is to go to one of the outdoors food courts. Just like in Singapore, you go to various stalls, order and pay for your food, and tell them your table number. (Excuse the bad pictures, shot with a phone in the dark).

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The best is to share a few dishes, so I went with a nice French couple I met a few days before in the Cameron Highlands. The Northern Malaysia tourist trail is fairly predictable, unless you make a stop in Ipoh, like I did.

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The karaoke show was very enthusiastic. Unlike in Singapore, the stalls are a very touristy affair – or at least this one was. I’m fairly certain all the Chinese men in the picture were tourists.

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In multicultural Georgetown, the main city of the island of Penang, you can be in China one minute, walk a few city blocks and…

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Bang! You’re in India. Continue reading

Ipoh.is.closed.

Ipoh is one of the largest cities in Malaysia and the capital of the state of Perak. It is about half way between the Cameron Highlands and Penang. I decided to spend 24 hours there just to get the feel of a non-touristy town in Northern Malaysia. As I have done many times before, I made the mistake of not noticing the day I was planning to visit.

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Sunday. This picture generally captures the vibe of Ipoh on a Sunday. Oh well! At least the place is known for colonial architecture, and that can’t be closed, so I went for a walk around the historic part of town.

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The Birch Memorial Clock Tower, named after the first British resident of Perak, James Birch. He was apparently somewhat arrogant with the local Malay chiefs, and that got him a spear through the chest.

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A big Government building. In the foreground, a monument to the victims of the 415 km Thai-Burma Railway, better known as the Death Railway. The railway was built during WWII by the Japanese forces, using South-East Asian slave labor and allied POWs. The POWs were very poorly treated and ouf of 61,700, 12,600 perished. The Asians were treated much, much worse and about 80,000 of the 170,000 did not survive. 2 years ago I visited one of the most infamous sections of that railway, the Hellfire Pass.

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Almost all the important colonial buildings are either Government offices or banks, presumably the only institutions which can afford them.

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The river Kinta, which runs through town. Continue reading

The beautiful scenery of Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands.

Before I write anything about the Cameron Highlands, I will tell you about a discovery I made at the airport. Walking around the duty free shops at Kuala Lumpur’s brand new US$1.3B KLIA2 terminal – just to kill time – I chanced to glance at the price of cigarettes.

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I don’t smoke, but $14 a carton seems like a normal price for cigarettes, if you remove all the taxes. Maybe $20?

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But this brand was almost 10 times more. Luxury Chinese cigarettes. I did not know such a thing existed.

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As I usually do when I transit in Kuala Lumpur, I didn’t visit anything or do any touristy activity, just enjoyed the food, the vibe and the glitzy malls, like this one in the process of decorating for Chinese New Year (year of the red monkey, 8 Feb 2016).

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During this trip to South-East Asia I also discovered something I had never noticed; the attraction and popularity of all things Japanese. I’ll tell you more in a couple of days.

This story is not about Kuala Lumpur, but I will mention one last thing, food prices outside the city center. I usually don’t find Malaysia especially cheap, but I don’t go were people of modest means go. At the suburban bus station where I caught my transport to the Cameron Highlands, several international and Malaysian food chains were present, but they had yet to open. So I went to a sort of cafeteria full of a mix of local travellers and bus station workers.

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Granted, this chewy bread (roti) and sauces / curries is not the most elaborate breakfast ever, but it was delicious. And look at the price: 2.85 Ringgit. That’s US$0.67, including the coffee! I later showed that to a Malaysian tour guide. “Wow, that’s really cheap”, he said. By comparison, at a Starbucks in Kuala Lumpur, a coffee alone is 9+ Ringgits.

The Cameron Highlands have been a popular vacation spot for a long time, because as the name suggests, they are high in the mountains and the higher elevation provides a welcome break from the oppressive heat of Kuala Lumpur. Continue reading

The Bali Horror Show: Forests of snakes and eyeballs for breakfast. And terrorism.

I spent Christmas in Montreal, where the weather was the hottest since 1960. On Christmas Eve, I was grocery shopping in short sleeves!

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Then I went back to Ottawa and this happened. Evidently, time to escape for the winter. I tried to book a reward flight to Kuala Lumpur, but either I couldn’t, or the “free” flight was in fact quite expensive. When oil prices tumbled, some Star Alliance airlines eliminated the fuel surcharges they had been adding to the ticket prices. Others, like Air Canada, Thai, etc., just renamed them “carrier charges”. So your reward ticket in the end is only a slightly discounted ticket.

If you live close to the American border, you can fly from there because United doesn’t do that. I tried that, but the Burlington – New York segment was never available for reward flights, which I suspect is on purpose and at the request of Air Canada. In the end I booked a surprisingly cheap Ottawa – Newark flight, and a JFK – Bali reward flight. This gave me an afternoon in Manhattan.

I contemplated visiting the 9/11 Memorial Museum, but there were hundreds of millions of people lined-up to get in and I knew if I tried to wait in line I would miss my flight, and possibly my birthday in July.

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So I just went to the outdoors monument, two pools of water like this one, built where the twin towers once stood and as big as they were. All around on the “fence”, the names of the 2,753 victims. I think it’s a very appropriate, very poignant memorial.

I rang in New Year’s Eve 2001 in Manhattan with a friend. Before we left, he insisted we climb up one of the towers. I complained because of the line-up, but relented. I am glad I did. Thanks Fred.

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The new tower, in the clouds.

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Wall Street’s famous bull, under a pile of tourists.

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And for the first time of my life, I rang in New Year on a plane. Since reward flights often offer bad connections (in this case New York – Tokyo, 3h wait, Tokyo – Singapore, 8h wait(!), Singapore – Bali), I threw in extra points for business class, which on ANA looks much more like other airline’s first class. Continue reading

Chicago’s amazing architecture. A post with mostly vertical pictures.

One of the many things I did not know about Chicago is how remarkable the architecture is.

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Formerly known as the Sears Tower, the Willis Tower was the tallest building in the world from 1974 until the construction of Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Twin Towers in 1998. The design was very innovative at the time. As you can see, it is actually several skinny buildings attached together. This is called bundled-tube construction. You can climb to the observation tower if you are willing to wait in line for half a day.

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Alternatively, you can go the John Handcock Center early in the morning and wait in line for 0 second. You get the downtown view from the North instead of the South. The fact that the observation deck is about 100m lower is totally irrelevant. The Willis tower is the rightmost super tall tower.

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The skyline is also spectacular from street level, here seen from the grounds of the Field Museum of Natural History.

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Builtin 1925, the Chicago Tribune building is an example of “historic revival”, in this case, neo-gothic.

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Completed only in 2009, Aqua at Lakeshore East is an award winning building designed to offer different views from all angles, as well as all sorts of green features. I was told that with nearly 2,000,000 square feet of floorspace on 84 floors, the $300M project has the distinction of being the largest project ever completed by an architectural firm directed by a woman, Jeanne Gang’s Studio Gang. Michelle and I had arrived in Chicago the night before and I had just stepped from the taxi to the hotel reception. As I was walking closer to this building in admiration, I realized I had slept in it the night before! I suppose I had noticed the strange shape of our balcony, but I had not linked the two together (I don’t know about the other ones, but our balcony was decorative only). The building houses apartments as well as the Radisson Aqua Blu, where we were staying. Continue reading

My first visit to the amazing city of Chicago.

Considering that for most of my life I have lived relatively close to Chicago, it is a bit embarrassing that not only had I never been, but I knew virtually nothing about one of the largest cities in North America. In fact, I think I knew about 3 things:

– Al Capone and the Prohibition;

– Milton Friedman and “Chicago School Economics”; and

– Deep dish pizza.

That was pretty much it, and I think my ignorance made my few superficial discoveries of this amazing city even more enjoyable.

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A cool element of the core downtown area is that some streets are multilevelled. It is not always apparent, but here, because of the vacant lot, you can see it very clearly. On a few occasions I wanted to, say, go straight and turn left, but realizedI couldn’t, because I was on the wrong level. I also found that while aimlessly walking downtown, one tends to stumble on the unexpected in Chicago.

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I was looking at my phone to find a grocery store when I saw this park, Lake Shore East Park, three levels down from the street I was on. Beautiful, almost without automobiles, lined with street level businesses and surrounded by condo towers. For me, ideal high density city living.

The enormous Millennium Park is a recently developed 99,000 m2 park built over old railways in disuse. It was decided in 1997 to spend $150M to redevelop it for the upcoming millenium. After spending $475M, it was ready just in time to ring in the New Year… 2004. While the project was an abomination of mismanagement, the result is magnificent.

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In the Crown Fountain (named after the Crown Family, not the Queen!) stand two LED walls on which faces are displayed in alternance. Founding Fathers of the city? Local celebrities? Nope, just the faces of the workers who built the park, according to a local guide (Wikipedia says random Chicagoans).

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The Cloud Gate, an enormous highly polished stainless steel sculpture. Much to the frustration of the artist, Anish Kapoor, the name never caught on and everybody calls it The Bean. It is a major local attraction and the crowds you see on this picture are those of a morning weekday. I went back on the week-end and it was packed. Continue reading

Caribbean cruising: final chapter.

Saint Martin, or Sint Maarten, is an unusual island in that it is split between two countries. The two halves are both relatively autonomous parts of, respectively, France and the Netherlands. Both sides are, by any measure, successful territories. However, like Macau or Cancun, they are places where a lot of people want to go, but that have absolutely no appeal to me – unless perhaps if I was looking for a quiet beach vacation.

By Aldo Bidini, via Wikimedia Commons

By Aldo Bidini, via Wikimedia Commons

The only thing of interest for me is this, the Princess Juliana International Airport. Because of the limited available space, planes have to fly only 10 meters above the beach before landing. Crazy videos on Youtube. Unfortunately, it is only shortly before leaving that I realized Saint-Martin is where this crazy airport is. I have only myself to blame for this lack of research.

Dutch and English are the official languages on Sint-Maarten, but I don’t recall seeing anything written in Dutch or hearing anyone speaking it.

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French is more present on Saint-Martin, at least on anything official.

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Private businesses seem to have a more creative approach. Despite this, you can certainly get by exclusively in French on the French side. I couldn’t tell you about the other side, since I don’t speak Dutch.

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The beaches looked very nice, with great walkways and lots of food, cafe and bar options. Continue reading